The Arty Semite

Now You Can Learn Yiddish From a Robot

By Itzik Gottesman

A version of this post appeared in Yiddish here. Translation by Ezra Glinter.

“Good morning. My name is Nomy. I am a girl. Good morning, Moby! He is a robot.”

So begins the first section of YiddishPOP, a new educational website featuring animated videos whose main character is a robot. It’s the result of a project begun three years ago, long awaited by Yiddish students and educators.

The initiative for YiddishPOP came from Avraham Kadar, head of the online education company BrainPOP and husband of the late Naomi Prawer Kadar, a Yiddish teacher and researcher of Yiddish children’s literature. Prawer Kadar also worked with BrainPOP to create ESL (English as a Second Language) educational materials.

Following her death in 2010, Prawer Kadar’s family decided to develop a teaching program for Yiddish within their company. “We felt that the project was a fitting honor for the memory of my mother’s passion for Yiddish. She would have led such a project herself, had she been alive,” said her daughter, Maya Kadar.

BrainPOP, which produces animated teaching materials, was founded by Avraham Kadar in 1999. Though Kadar is an immunologist and pediatrician by profession, he undertook to create teaching programs so that “young patients could understand difficult concepts through creative means.” The programs on BrainPOP are designed to be used by both individuals and groups, including entire classes. The company sells its products to educators and schools, but the YiddishPOP program is available for free online. Every few months a new course-level will be released.

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Taking Yiddish Translation to the Masses

By Rukhl Schaechter

A version of this post appeared in Yiddish here.

Academics and enthusiasts of Yiddish studies have long been pushing for the translation of Yiddish literature. Unfortunately, few efforts have met with much success, even among Jewish readers. The New Yiddish Library Series, from Yale University Press, had plans to translate and publish dozens of Yiddish books, but was forced to halt the project due to low sales.

Writer and translator Michael Wex hopes to change all that. On May 7, Wex, the author of “Born to Kvetch” and “Just Say Nu,” launched an indiegogo campaign to raise money to translate Yosef Opatoshu’s novel, “In Polish Forests.” Wex plans to render the book into English and then post it online for free. A comprehensive introduction will acquaint the reader with Opatoshu’s life and work.

Through this project, Wex hopes to “pioneer a new model for literary translation while rescuing a seminal work of modern Yiddish literature from undeserved neglect,” he writes on his indiegogo page.

In the novel, Opatoshu describes the decay of the Hasidic dynasty in Kotsk after the Napoleonic period, up to the Polish uprising of 1863. He focuses on the lives of backwoods Jews and their daily interactions with gentile Polish peasants. Contrary to the stereotype that Jews lived in constant dread of their Polish neighbors, Opatoshu shows us a very different reality: Jews interacting easily with Poles, and Poles displaying respect for their Jewish neighbors.

“Touching as it does on Hasidism, heresy, pre-Christian Polish folk customs, wife-swapping, messianism, and Polish nationalism, this book will change the way you think about Jewish life in Poland,” Wex writes.

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Inspired by Gluckel of Hameln

By Rebecca Miller

This week Rebecca Miller will be sharing texts that shed light on Jewish life in 18th-century France, the setting of her new novel, “Jacob’s Folly” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Her blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:


Gluckel of Hameln was an intrepid businesswoman, a mother of twelve children, a passionate wife, and a memoirist. She died in 1724, at the age of 78. Her memoirs are a rare window into the life of European Jewish women of the period. What struck me most vividly by her account of her days was her ability to bridge a business career (otherwise known as financial survival) and family concerns, living a unified, if exhausting, life.

“My father had me betrothed when I was a girl of barely twelve, and less than two years later I married.” So ends Gluckel’s childhood. As often happened, Gluckel’s marital deal included her being exported to another town. In this case, she was crammed into a peasant cart along with the rest of the wedding party (her mother was much put out, having expected carriages) and bustled off to the “dull and shabby hole” of Hameln, a small village. “There I was, a carefree child whisked in the flush of youth from my parents, friends, and everyone I knew, from a city like Hamburg into a back-country town where lived only two Jews.”

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Almost the Whole 'Megile'

By Curt Schleier

Michael Priest

“The Megile of Itzik Manger” and the National Yiddish Theatre seem like a perfect partnership: love and marriage, horse and carriage, Purim shpiel and the Folksbiene.

Manger is considered one of the most important Yiddish poets and playwrights, and “The Megile” is one of several plays in which he put his own stamp on a biblical story. It was reworked as a musical by, among others, award-winning composer Dov Seltzer, a totem of Israeli creativity.

The play has had several successful productions, including a lengthy run in Israel and a brief one on Broadway. This interpretation, however, could better serve its extremely enthusiastic and talented cast.

In a couple of Russian-style numbers, the dancers wear fur caps, a tip-of-the, well, hat, to the theater’s large émigré audience. But this is hardly true to the show’s Persian locale. And director Motl Didner’s use of a circus theme seems puzzling. Employing a ring master (Shane Baker) as narrator works but, after an opening scene set in a 1937 Polish circus, the theme isn’t carried through in a meaningful way.

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Where To Read New Yiddish Literature

By Forward Staff

The news about Yiddish literature these days is mostly about translation — whether from Yiddish (as with Moyshe Kulbak’s “Zelmenyaner,” which I recently reviewed), or, as seems to be increasingly the case, into Yiddish.

But there are plenty of writers out there producing work in Yiddish, plain and simple. A representative sample can be found in the new issue of Afn Shvel, a Yiddish magazine whose latest issue is dedicated to new Yiddish writing.

Published by the League for Yiddish and edited by Sheva Zucker, the latest double issue of Afn Shvel (or “On the Threshold”), departs from the usual magazine format to look more like a quarterly literary journal.

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Alice in Yiddishland

By Forward Staff

Translating classic children’s books into Yiddish is becoming a trend these days. First there was “The Hobbit,” which was recently translated by retired computer programmer Barry Goldstein. Now there’s “Alice in Wonderland,” which has been rendered into Yiddish by Israeli children’s author Adina Bar-El.

Bar-El, 66, who lives on Moshav Nir Yisrael, is the author of some 19 books for children and teenagers (including such titles as “Miss Contrary” and “The Strongest Boy in Kindergarten”), as well as poetry and books for adults. She is also a scholar of Jewish children’s literature and journalism in Poland between the two World Wars, and received her doctorate in the field from Hebrew University.

Given the emphasis on wordplay in “Alice in Wonderland,” translation was no easy task. In an English introduction to the volume, Bar-El explains some of her techniques:

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Agudah Editor Joseph Friedenson Dies at 90

By Forward Staff

Joseph Friedenson, the founder and long-time editor of the Agudath Israel organ Dos Yiddishe Vort, passed away February 23 at his home in Manhattan, the Forverts reported. Friedenson, a survivor of the Holocaust, founded the monthly Yiddish journal in the Feldafing and Landesberg displaced persons camps in Germany, and edited it continually in New York since 1953.

Friedenson was born in Lodz in 1922. His father, Eliezer Gershon Friedenson, was one of the leaders of the Beis Yaakov school movement in Poland. After the outbreak of World War II the family fled to Warsaw where they were imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto. There Friedenson married his wife, Gittel Leah Zilberman, who passed away in 2006. They both survived the Warsaw Ghetto, the Szydlowiec Ghetto, the Starachowice labor camp and Auschwitz, and were reunited a few months after the end of the war.

In a 2007 profile of Friedenson for the Forward, Toby Appleton Perl described him as “an avid newspaperman” who read multiple publications daily in several languages. During its heyday in the 1970s and ‘80s, Dos Yiddishe Vort boasted a readership of up to 8,000 people and published many highly regarded Yiddish writers, including Friedenson himself.

Watch Forverts editor Boris Sandler interview Joseph Friedenson in 2011:

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Dispute Settled Over Yiddish Literary Trove

By Ezra Glinter

Forward Association

The dispute over the papers of the late Yiddish writer Chaim Grade has been settled in favor of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and the National Library of Israel, according to a recent press release. The two organizations have also gained control over copyright to Grade’s published work.

Grade was one of the most highly regarded postwar Yiddish writers. His oeuvre includes novels such as “The Yeshiva“ and “The Agunah,” as well as the novelistic memoir “My Mother’s Sabbath Days.” He was also the author much untranslated poetry and several novels that were serialized in the Yiddish press but have never appeared in book form.

The collection was recovered from the writer’s home by the Bronx Public Administrator after the death of Grade’s wife, Inna Hecker Grade, in 2010. It includes 40 boxes of letters, photographs and manuscripts, as well as Grade’s 20,000-volume library.

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Author Blog: Dreaming in Mother Tongues

By Hannah S. Pressman

Earlier, Hannah S. Pressman wrote about the idea behind “Choosing Yiddish: New Frontiers of Language and Culture” and when she first began to study Yiddish. Her blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:


Zi kholmt — she dreams.

In Irena Klepfisz’s remarkable poem, “Etlekhe verter oyf mame-loshn / A few words in the mother tongue,” the speaker presents different female identities in the form of a Yiddish vocabulary list. The poem toggles seamlessly between Yiddish and English, but gradually, the bilingualism of the middle stanzas gives way to a series of incantations solely in the mame-loshn of Yiddish.

Here is Klepfisz’s haunting final refrain:

zi kholmt
zi kholmt
zi kholmt

She dreams / she dreams / she dreams. What strikes me about these verses? The insistent female pronoun, zi; the fact that the poem has shifted irrevocably into Yiddish; the notion that a poem all about language ends with a verb not indicating speaking or singing, but rather, dreaming.

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Author Blog: Yiddish and Us

By Hannah S. Pressman

Earlier this week, Hannah S. Pressman wrote about when she first began to study Yiddish. Her blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:


The three of us waited expectantly and somewhat nervously in the seminar room, wondering why we had been summoned by our professor. Nu, what was going on — why the special meeting?

I glanced over at my classmates. Shiri Goren had grown up in Hod Hasharon, Israel, studied at Tel Aviv University, and went on to a successful career as an editor for IDF Radio and television news. Like me, she was now pursuing doctoral work in Hebrew literature. Lara Rabinovitch grew up in Toronto and attended McGill University. She was enrolled jointly in Jewish Studies and history, and had an active side career as a food writer. I hailed from Richmond, Virginia, and had studied English and Religious Studies at UVA.

Three students from very different places, meeting weekly to debate history’s impact on Yiddish cultural expression. During our exploration of “Yiddishism in the 20th Century” in the spring of 2005, we learned about the rise of Yiddish literature, the Yiddish press, spelling reform (quite a contentious subject!), and the language’s role in Israel, America and Cold War politics.

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Author Blog: Yiddish and Me

By Hannah S. Pressman

Hannah S. Pressman is the co-editor, with Lara Rabinovitch and Shiri Goren, of “Choosing Yiddish: New Frontiers of Language and Culture.” She is the editor of stroumjewishstudies.org and affiliate faculty for the University of Washington’s Stroum Jewish Studies Program. Her blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:


When I first began studying Yiddish, I felt like I was remembering something I already knew.

It was a lovely sensation, this feeling at home in a language I was still acquiring. There I was, barely a few weeks into my first summer at YIVO Institute’s Uriel Weinreich Program, and I was able to read, write, and speak Yiddish — not perfectly, but happily. Relishing my newfound abilities, I absorbed vocabulary lists, salutations and songs, delighted to be able to talk about the weather or kvetch (complain) about an injury in Yiddish.

Granted, I’ve always had somewhat of a knack for learning languages. Grammar and syntax just fall into place for me. I also undertook my Yiddish studies armed with fluency in Hebrew, a definite advantage when it came to the alphabet and loshn-koydesh (holy tongue) components of Yiddish.

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Setting 'Yellow Ticket' to Music

By Renee Ghert-Zand

Courtesy of Deutsche Kinemathek

Klezmer violinist Alicia Svigals has experience scoring documentary and feature films. But earlier this year she faced an unusual challenge when she was approached by the Washington Jewish Music Festival to score a 1918 feature-length silent film called “The Yellow Ticket.”

Unlike other scoring jobs, where her focus was mainly on heightening viewers’ experience of onscreen action, this commission would also involve “creating a bridge to another time,” as she put it. Thanks to a grant from the Foundation for Jewish Culture’s New Jewish Culture Network, audiences at the New York Jewish Film Festival will have a chance to cross that bridge when Svigals and Canadian pianist Marilyn Lerner perform the score live at a screening of “The Yellow Ticket” at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater on January 10. A subsequent tour will travel to Vancouver, Miami, Boston, Philadelphia and Houston.

“The Yellow Ticket,” set in Poland and Czarist Russia, portrays a young Jewish woman named Lea (played by Polish actress Pola Negri, Hollywood’s first European silent film star) as she overcomes adversity to succeed at the university in Saint Petersburg. It is a story of secret identities and the redeeming power of love. For 1918 audiences, the meaning and implications of possessing a “yellow ticket” — a permit held by undesirables like prostitutes and Jews, allowing them to reside in St. Petersburg — would be clear. Now, it is Svigals’ remit to convey through her music the shame and hardship associated with such a document, as well as the risks Lea takes in assuming a false identity in order to pursue her studies.

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Author Blog: Speaking Backwards

By Harry Brod

Earlier, Harry Brod wrote about a couple of sayings with which he disagrees and why he always has a valid passport. His blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:


I’ve been told that students in my college courses sometimes have trouble following what I’m saying because I speak backwards.

The problem is the order in which I put words in a sentence. Having grown up in a Yiddish and German speaking household, I seem to think in the structure of those languages even when I’m speaking English. Maybe if I looked like Yoda they’d get into it, but as a New York Jew in Iowa, I’m just strange.

I think of Cynthia Ozick, who has said that she writes Yiddish sentences in English. Some years ago I was invited to deliver a lecture on Ozick’s wonderful paired short story and novella “The Shawl” and “Rosa.” I made this point by reading a few words from one of the first sentences in “Rosa”: “Her meals she had elsewhere.” That, I pointed out, is not standard English prose. In English one would normally say “She had her meals elsewhere.” Standard Yiddish sentence construction is what it is.

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Translation Contest to Honor Abraham Sutzkever

By Renee Ghert-Zand

Summer Literary Seminars has announced its Abraham Sutzkever Translation Prize, marking the centennial of the birth of one of the most acclaimed Yiddish poets of the 20th century.

“To me, he is the leading Yiddish poet, the epitome of Yiddish literature in the 20th century,” Mikhail Iossel said of Sutzkever. Iossel, a Soviet émigré and associate professor of English and Creative Writing at Concordia University in Montreal, is the founder and director of the literary, creative writing and historical workshops that have taken place in St. Petersburg, Montreal, Nairobi and Vilnius. The Sutzkever Prize is associated with the SLS Lithuania program for summer 2013.

The new prize is being added to a lineup of already existing ones that are given through the SLS Unified Literary Contest, awarding winners with tuition, stipends and publication assurances. The winner of the Sutzkever Prize will receive tuition to SLS Lithuania plus $500 toward travel expenses. In addition, the winning entry will be translated into Lithuanian, and read at a celebration in Vilnius on the centennial, on July 15, 2013. The deadline for submissions is February 28, 2013.

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Englander's Inspiration

By Rukhl Schaechter

Getty Images
Nathan Englander

The Forverts’s Rukhl Schaechter once heard a Yiddish professor complain that his American students knew nothing about Stalin’s execution of 13 Soviet Jews, which took place in August 1952. Even more discouraging, he added, was their “complete lack of interest” in the Yiddish culture that once thrived in the Former Soviet Union.

Two days before the premiere of “The Twenty-Seventh Man,” Schaechter talked to author Nathan Englander about this phenomenon and what inspired him, a self-proclaimed Yankee from Long Island, to write about it.

Rukhl Schaechter: What inspired you to write about Stalin’s execution of Soviet Yiddish writers?

Nathan Englander: I guess it’s because I read a lot, and I believe in imagined worlds. I learned about that period when I was in Israel, in my junior year abroad at Hebrew University, and the Iron Curtain was about to fall. My teacher, Edith Frankel, who was a Russian studies expert, mentioned it as an aside. I thought it was strange that no one talked about it, and I felt that these writers deserved a story about them. So I waited a few years. It was shocking to me that this nefarious event occurred and because of it, a whole world was destroyed, and yet no one wrote about it. When I began working on the story myself, I discovered there was almost no information, just an entry here and there in the Encyclopedia Judaica.

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Theaters Paved With Gold

By Curt Schleier

When my parents landed in New York in 1947 they were assigned a case worker. I’m not sure who did the assigning, but I remember my father saying how puzzled he was. “Case” was German for cheese, and he didn’t understand why he needed a cheese worker.

Michael Priest Photography

My parents didn’t tell many stories about their early lives, about crossing the border from Austria into Switzerland after the Anschluss or how they got to the goldene medina. Perhaps I didn’t ask the right questions.

But that particular anecdote stayed with me, because it was about their life at the precipice. They were starting a new life in a new land with a new language, one briefly filled with optimism and faith that life could and would be better.

Perhaps that is why I am such a fan of the new National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene production of “The Golden Land,” a joyous celebration of the turn-of-the-century Jewish immigrant experience.

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'Selected Shorts' Host Isaiah Sheffer Dies at 76

By Itzik Gottesman

Courtesy Symphony Space

Radio personality Isaiah Sheffer died today in New York at age 76. Sheffer was co-founder and artistic director of the performing art center Symphony Space on the upper west side of Manhattan, and was known nationally as the long time host of the public radio series “Selected Shorts,” which began in 1985. Sheffer started Symphony Space in 1978 with the conductor Alan Miller, and turned a run down theater into one of the most active cultural centers in New York. Sheffer stepped down from the post in 2009.

Isaiah Sheffer was born in the Bronx and was a child actor in the Yiddish theater. He had a lifelong connection to both Yiddish and English radio. His uncle was the noted actor and Yiddish radio personality Zvi Scooler. Starting as a young man in the 1960s, Sheffer’s sonorous voice could be heard on radio station WEVD, the station of the Jewish Daily Forward, where he was the English language host and newscaster. Sheffer was also the author of numerous plays and musicals including “Yiddle with a Fiddle,” “The Rise of David Levinsky” and “Dreamers and Demons: The Three Worlds of Isaac Bashevis Singer.”

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An Erev Rosh Hashanah Martyr

By Arthur Green

Hillel Zeitlin (1871-1942), the leading neo-Hasidic thinker in Eastern Europe before the Holocaust, was for Hebrew and Yiddish-reading Jews what Martin Buber was for their more westernized German-reading brethren: the person who rendered the passionate religious life of Hasidism accessible to non-Orthodox Jews. A prolific writer and well-known lecturer, teacher and journalist, Zeitlin was one of the best-known martyrs of the Warsaw Ghetto. This Sunday, September 15, the eve of Rosh Hashanah, marks the 70th anniversary of his death.

Zeitlin, who was born in 1871, was already frail and elderly by the time the Ghetto was established because he and his family shared the widespread starvation and illnesses of Warsaw’s Jews. One of his sons died of typhus in the ghetto, and his remains are in one of the last graves in Warsaw’s huge Jewish cemetery. (Another son, the well-known poet Aaron Zeitlin, was on a lecture tour in the U.S. when the war broke out in 1939, and thus was saved.)

When Zeitlin’s block was called forth to the notorious Umschlagplatz (assembly-point for the forced march to Treblinka), Zeitlin came out wearing tallit and tefillin, a statement of defiance to the Nazis, who showed particular cruelty toward Jews dressed for prayer. He also carried a copy of the Zohar, the text sacred to Jewish mystics, in his hand. He joined the march in this way, but, according to the one survivor of the march, died along the road.

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More Than Just 'Radio Shmadio'

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

Crossposted From Under the Fig Tree

Over the years, I’ve attended lots of symposia but never one that began with the ringing of chimes and concluded with a most hearty and prolonged round of applause. These two sounds, along with the sight of presenters swaying to the beat of “Yiddish Melodies in Swing” or singing the praises of the “Cohen on the Radio” vaudeville sketches with their catch-all phrase, “Radio, Shmadio,” were in full throttle at last week’s Library of Congress salute to Henry Sapoznik and the donation of his collection of Yiddish radio memorabilia.

Now a part of the American Folklife Center where, one hopes, it will receive a new lease on life, this treasure trove of auditory materials underscores the vibrancy of American Jewish life at the grass roots. Whether poking fun at “Sam the man who made the pants too long,” or rendering the familiar Campbell Soup jingle auf yidish, as in “Campbell Soup iz – um um – immer gut,” or introducing the very latest Hebrew folksongs, Yiddish radio informed, entertained and sustained audiences of the interwar years.

Fifty years later, Yiddish radio had the same effect on the nearly 200 people in attendance at this symposium. It held us in its static-y embrace. At many a conference, it’s customary to find more participants holding impromptu conversations in the hallway than paying attention to the proceedings.

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Author Blog: Illusions and Remembering

By Steve Stern

Yesterday, Steve Stern wrote about his decision to teach creative writing in Vilnius. His blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:


I liked to sit sipping coffee in the tall kitchen window of my apartment in Vilnius. The window overlooked the broad Town Hall Square teeming day and night with international tourists. Gold-domed churches and pastel houses with terra cotta roofs bordered the square, above which loomed the red brick castle on its hill. Beyond the castle were the dense pine forests that surrounded the city like a green velvet setting for a diadem. The window coincidentally faced the corner where the Nazis had staged their so-called Great Provocation. This was the faked sniping incident they used to justify the “retaliation” that led ultimately to the extermination of the Vilna Jews.

Turn left outside of my apartment and you entered the Square, with its wind-tossed fountain, linen and amber boutiques, and outdoor cafes. Turn right and you found yourself in a dreary, cavernous courtyard carved out of what had once been the small ghetto. In this area women, children, and the elderly were corralled and starved before being marched out to the killing fields of Paneriai, where they were summarily shot and tossed into open pits.

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